The Role of Women in Celtic Society
By Christine Wakim




celtic-angelopaq.jpg

I am the womb: of every holt,

I am the blaze: of every hill,

I am the queen: of every hive,

I am the shield: of every head,

I am the tomb: of every hope.


Excerpt from the song of Amergin. Translated by Robert Graves, 1948 "The White Goddess"

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Introduction:

Women have held various roles in society and varying degrees of hierarchy throughout history. Pre-Roman iron age Europe, approximately 1200-61BC, a time dominated by the Celts, would be no different. Defining the functions of Celtic women proves rather challenging since the Celts were a non literate society, choosing instead to pass information from one generation to the next through oral tradition. Much of our knowledge of the Celts comes from classical literature, archaeological data, stories and myth, and of course, theory. In the following pages I will explore the role of women in the Celtic society as evidenced in classical literature, Archaeological Evidence and Celtic Women of Legend.

  1. Celtic Women in Greek and Roman Literature
  2. Archaeological evidence of the Roles of Women in Celtic Society
  3. Celtic Women of Legend
  4. Conclusion




1. Celtic Women in Greek and Roman Literature:

Much of our information on the Celtic tribal empire comes from the classical writings of the Greeks and Romans. These sources, however, are scarce. Also, the historical records we do have were not written during the peak of Celtic prosperity in the 4th century BC, but at much later dates as you will see in the following paragraphs. Much of what was written was based on hearsay and other resources which have also suffered the ravages of time and disappeared. Also, historical records are written from the point of view of those who are writing them. I like to think of history as a recording of events from the past, but also, the way in which these events are remembered by their authors. With that said, it is amazing that within the very few pieces of Greek and Roman literature of the Celts that does exist, documents do survive that mention Celtic women. These women must have made an impact on their foreign observers.

The Greeks were a people who relied heavily on trade and some Greek traders ventured up the Rhone River into the heart of central Europe where they met and traded with the Celts. To the shorter, olive skinned Greeks, the tall, fair skinned Celts must surely have been met with intrigue and weariness. In many Greek writings the Celts are referred to as “barbarians”, the Greeks however, referred to all those who didn't speak Greek as barbarians, from the Greek root word Barbar, which means foreigner.(Noble, The Foundations of Western Civilization) The Greeks must have been struck by the immense differences between the Celts and themselves. The Celts were a tribal empire, not a political one like the Greeks, they lived in small daub and thatch houses, not great cities with fine buildings, and the Celts had no system of writing. Another difference that must have caught their eye was the Celtic women and the role they played in their own society. It should be mentioned that Greek women of Athens had no political rights at all and very limited social rights. A woman in the Athenian Greek society could not inherit or own land, partake in any political activity and the most important decisions of her personal life such as marriage were made by her father and subsequently her husband. Listed below are some of the more famous Greek literary accounts of the Celtic women.

  • Diodorus Siculus was a Greek historian who lived in the 1st century BC. In one of his books on the Gauls Diodorus describes “The women here are both as tall and as courageous as the men”(5:317The historical Library of Diodorus) Siculus also describes the abundance of gold jewelry worn by women.(qtd. In Freeman, 56) This is an interesting observance, since we will also see evidence of this in Celtic female burials and art.
  • Plutarch was a Greek philosopher who viewed women with a very opened mind, especially at the time he lived from 46-120AD. He wrote in 28 different instances about women and their roles as leaders, warriors and ambassadors of peace. Plutarch tells of the story of Chiomara who was captured by the Romans and raped. The Roman Centurian learned of her high rank and returned her to the Celts for a significant ransome. As the Centurian collected the gold, Chiomara had him decapitated. When she returned to her husband he declared 'Women, a fine thing (is) good faith.' Chiomara replied, 'A better thing only one man be alive who had intercourse with me.'(Ellis, pg 93) My favorite story by Plutarch is of a Celtic Druidess Camma and her display of honor, strength and patience.(qtd. In Freeman 55) Click here to read the story.


Roman interaction with the Celts was more volatile. They were sacked by the Celts in 387BC. This small victory was short lived however, and the Romans would continue to gain strength and eventually, some 300 years later, would overcome the north and end the Celtic rule of Europe. Many Roman historians have documented, again, through hearsay and other resources, about the strong, courageous and independent women of the Celts. Once again, it is important to take a brief look at the role Roman women played in their society. Roman women had more rights than their Greek counterparts, however, compared with the Celts remained at a political and social disadvantage. Roman women could visit public places such as courts of law and the theatre, however, they were not allowed to own land and needed a male guardian to conduct business affairs.(Ellis, 91) Listed below are some of the Roman literary accounts of the Celtic women.

  • Julius Caesar stated; Whatever sums of money the husbands have received in the name of dowry from their wives, making an estimate of it, they add the same amount out of their own estates. An account is kept of all this money conjointly, and the profits are laid by: whichever of them shall have survived, to that one the portion of both reverts together with the profits of the previous time. (6.18)
  • The Roman historian Tacitus tells us of the British Queen Boudicca, who at the death of her husband and violation of her daughters, in 60AD, took political control and mounted an army against the Romans. Tacitus states: Boudicca mounted her chariot with her daughters beside her and rode throughout the army, rousing them to fight for final victory. “It is not unusual for Britons to follow a woman as leader into war. But I fight not as a queen of glorious lineage to regain my kingdom and power, but as a simple woman of the people who has lost her(their) freedom like a slave.”(qtd. In Freeman 58) Tacitus also tells the story of Cartimandua, the daughter of the king of the Brigantes who didn't have any sons. Cartimandua became queen. She married the great warrior Venutius, renounced him, and then married the knight Vellocatus, drawing him into the royal circle.
  • Ammiamus Marcellinus was a Latin historian who lived in the 4th century AD. His work was the first major history of Rome written in Latin for almost 300 years. Marcellinus was a Syrian Greek who became a Roman citizen, therefor, we may get a more factual portrayal of the Celts since Marcellinus was not solely influenced by the Romans. It was reported that he stayed in Gaul for 18 months from 355-357AD.(Matthews,1122) Marcellinus wrote, “Almost all the Gauls are tall, fair and ruddy in complexion, have terrible flashing eyes, love quarreling, and are amazingly insolent. If one of them in battle calls out for help to his wife, who with her piercing eyes is stronger than him by far, not even a whole troop of foreigners can stand up to them. This is especially true when, swelling her neck, she starts to pound them with her huge white arms and mixes in fierce kicks and blows, hitting her enemies with the power of a catapult”.(qtd. In Freeman, 59)

These Greek and Roman stories tell a tale of a society of women that were different from their own. Stories which span hundreds of years, relay the message of Celtic women as equal counterparts to their husbands, contributing not only their physical strength, but their strength of spirit, and pride in self and culture.Excellent resource on Classical Literature pertaining to the Celts



2. Archaeological Evidence of the Roles of Women in Celtic Society:


The most factually based data we have on the ancient Celts come from burial remains. Thousands of graves have been discovered in the lands previously belonging to the Celts. More densely in some areas than others, as well as in periods of time. Many of these graves have unfortunately been looted in centuries past for their treasures leaving behind only remnants and pieces of clues as to their inhabitants. When people did begin to understand the historical significance of these graves their intentions were good, however, their excavation methods were lacking, and much information has been lost or recored inaccurately. There have been discoveries in the 20th century of fully intact graves which has given us a small look into the burial rituals of the ancient Celts, possibly telling us something about the people as well.

For the sake of this paper I have concentrated on female burials, and there have been many. Do the remains of these burials tell us a story of a society where women were seen more as equals in the eyes of their male counterparts? Archaeologists still have a long way to go in analyzing the data, but thus far, the results do appear promising.

We will begin in the Hallstatt period(800-500BC) in the settlement area of Mont Lassois, in France. In 1952-3 one of the most significant Celtic female burials was discovered. She was named “Lady of Vix” and is to date the best example of a rich funerary assemblage for a [Celtic] woman of the ruling class.(Frey, pg 97) The Lady of Vix was approximately 35 years of age at her death and suffered from tooth decay. As James states, she lay on the chassis of a vehicle which served as a bier.(pg 23) (See illustration.) Many such wagons were found in graves of the elite, probably serving as a procession vehicle of the deceased to their grave site. The lady of Vix wore many rich ornaments including gold and bronze necklaces, a necklace made of amber, diorite, and serpentine, as well as a gold pick ring decorated with winged horses. At the base of her skull was a beautiful gold torque. (See illustration.) Her clothes were fastened with eight small fibulae, many of which were embellished with coral. Her arms were adorned with two bracelets. She also wore a bronze anklet. A most outstanding find was a “service” for banquets and drinking, partly of Greek and Etruscan origin.(Frey, pg 97) Another extraordinary find from this grave was a Greek Krater standing 1.64 meters high, weighing 208 kilograms, the largest ever found. (See illustration) It was decorated with Greek warriors, chariots and gorgons. Upon its lid stood the statue of a woman clad in a long robe, with a shawl sweeping over her head and ending at her waist. These vats were used for mixing wine, water and herbs. (See the illustration of the Lady of Vix's Burial Chamber)
Vix_Burial_Chamber.jpg
Lady of Vix, Burial Chamber

Very near to the Vix burial site in the village of Sainte-Colombe lie the Tumulus tombs which also contained a princess who was entombed with earrings and bracelets of gold. She too was found arranged on a four wheel wagon.(Frey, pg 120)
Celtic_Tomb_Wagons.jpg
Wagon on which the dead were laid to rest.


Another burial of a man and woman was in the Hobmichele Tomb VI in Germany. Again, the couple were interred on a wagon, the amount of jewelry was significantly lower than in other elite burials, but since there were remains of the woman's dress, I thought it worth mentioning. The woman's dress was embroidered with fine Chinese silk thread(Frey, pg 87). This silk would have had to been imported from a great distance, and was surely only obtainable by the elite.
In 1951 in Ditzingen-Schockingen, Germany the remains of a Celtic female burial was found with all of it's grave goods intact. The female skeleton was a woman roughly 25 years of age. She was buried with her head facing south, feet to the north. The striking pieces of gold and bronze that still remained at her side consisted of nine small rings, six pins, a flat neck ring, bracelets, an anklet as well as a coral necklace.(Biel, pg 128)
The Etruscan Flagon found in the Vix Grave
The Etruscan Flagon found in the Vix Grave







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Female Torque found in burial, 500 B.C.E.



The La Tene Period(500-60BC) also sees many lavish Celtic Female Graves. A change we see at the beginning of La Tene period compared to that of the Hallstatt period is the transfer from the use of wagons in the burial chamber to that of the two wheeled chariot. We will begin with one of the most impressive female tombs, that of Princess Reinheim.
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Armlet, female burial. Reinheim Germany. 4th century B.C.E.
She was discovered in 1954 in an industrial area of southwest Germany. What was first discovered and has been labeled as an item utilized by only the wealthiest Celts, was a bronze mirror like the one illustrated on this page. After further excavation a formidable collection of gold jewelry as well as
gold rims for drinking horns, an elegant bronze flagon, bronze dishes, and a mound of small glass and amber beads, amulets, rings and rivets were found.(Calliope) Interestingly, this grave was much more luxurious than its neighboring male graves.(Schutz, pg 268) This female of Celtic past was almost certainly a member of a distinct class.
The Celtic female burials found in the Marne river near Port-a-Binson appear to provide some evidence of a hierarchy. In some graves a large amount of jewelry was found, in others only one or two pieces, and yet, in other graves there is a complete absence of jewelry. Another very interesting fact about the Marnian burial sites is the large number of lavish female tombs, compared with a very small number of male tombs. As Roualet states, it is impossible to exclude a priori that this may have been a matriarchal society.(pg 170)
In the tombs of Bad Durkheim, Reinheim, and Worms-Herrnscheim the lavish female graves account for 50% of all tombs excavated to date.(Roualet, pg 186)
One of the most frequent Celtic burial finds, according to AP Online, has just been discovered in 2005 in Denmark. This female skeleton, assumed to be between the age of 20-40 was found intact, with most of her bones preserved from approximately 400BC. She was adorned with jewelry and appears to be from a wealthy class. Here is a brief but interesting article on wealthy Celtic female burials.
Archaeology Magazine: Celtic Burial

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Bronze Mirror. La Tene Culture. Desborough England. 1st Century B.C.E.


The last of many Celtic female graves I would like to mention is the grave found at Bescheid in 1979. It was the tomb of an eight year old girl, laid west-to-east. As Haffner states, the body was richly adorned with bronze headbands, neck-ring, two matching bracelets, and iron armlet, and a belt with a small iron clasp and two pretty rings.(pg 187) Also accompanying the child was a fine goblet, a knife laid at her feet, and a 5th century bronze Etruscan cup. This tomb is the only one of its kind and dates to approximately 400BC. It is fascinating to imagine this young girl's role. Was she merely the offspring of a great king, or maybe she was the offspring of a great queen, or perhaps, even a queen herself.

The true number of Celtic female graves is unknown as stated by
Constanze Witt. Many tomb filled artifacts such as drinking vessels and weaponry have been identified in graves originally designated as female, however, many archaeologists of the time thought this likelihood impossible and had the graves relabeled from female to male. Hopefully, these graves will be revisited and reanalyzed in the future. It may be worth reiterating that many Classical historical texts state that women filled the roles of leaders and warriors. Would it not then be appropriate to bury female warriors with weapons and cups of drink, especially since the Celts celebrated victory with feasts and drink.
Reconstructed Tomb of the Princes of Reinheim
Reconstructed Tomb of the Princes of Reinheim

Further information on Excavation Sites



The middle of the La Tene period would see the discontinuity of the impressive, raised type burial mounds, and excavations would show more ordinary objects taking the place of gold ones, especially notable is the absence of torques. This may have been due to the declining prosperity of the time.

Many female figurines that have been found show the same ornamentation that are found in female burials.(Wells, pg 52) For further information on Celtic art see the page by Gregg.

A different type of archaeological evidence pertaining to the Celts that exists is that of the bog bodies. For detailed information on the bog bodies, please see the page by Hannah. For the purpose of my page I would like to introduce the Huldremose woman, who can be identified as a Celtic woman of a lesser class than compared to those mentioned above. She wore two sheepskin capes, a checked woolen cloth similar to a scarf, fastened with a bone pin, and an ankle-length gathered skirt.(Dig) Please watch the brief “youtube” video to view this woman's attire.






















3. Celtic Women of Legend:

As O'Reilly so eloquently states, the many sided Celtic nature has no more distinct aspect than its poetic one, the Irish poet and Bard was the very voice of the people, high and low, sad and merry-the song maker, the croon chanter, the story teller, the preserver of history, the rewarder of heroes.(pg 5) A great deal of information on Celtic heritage comes to us from Irish and Welsh folklore. This history began in the Christian monasteries, painstakingly written by monks. Some truths, most likely. Some myths, most definitely. It is up to the reader and historian to grovel through the bits and pieces of information in combination with factual data to reach a conclusion. To date, the conclusions differ. Here I will share some very interesting tales of women in Celtic Society.

The following are two examples of the freedoms enjoyed by the Celtic women in the areas of marriage and procreation as stated by Loomis.

  • Girls would rub their naked bodies against one of these stones[megaliths],and pick a husband from among the eligible young men who congregated in the neighborhood.(pg 204) For more information on megaliths see “Celtic Monuments” by Teasha.
  • If a wife was sterile, she and her husband at the full moon would strip naked beside a menhir; he would chase the woman around it until he caught her and then cohabit with her at it's foot.(pg 204)

The following Irish tales tell us about a brave and noble Celtic race of females.

  • Scathach, a female champion, was the principle instructor of the martial arts to [the male warrior] Cuchulainn.” (Ellis, pg 92)
  • Ellis speaks of a female champion named Estiu who played a prominent part in the story of Suibhne Geilt. (pg 92)
  • Aoife was a famous warrior so brilliant that her foe, Cuchulainn, had to resort to trickery to defeat her.
  • Macha Mong Ruadh, daughter of Aed Ruadh, became ruler of all of Ireland from 377-331BC.

Many Irish epics speak of the Female Druid and her important role in that intellectual class of Celts. For further information on the Druids, see “Social Structure and Every day Life in Celtic Culture” by Laura.

The Brehon Law system of Ireland's past listed many rights and freedoms enjoyed by the Celtic women. Women could inherit land and remain the holder of that land even if her marriage should end in divorce. Divorce was allowed in Celtic society as marriage was viewed as more of a legal contract than that of a religious one. Either the husband or wife could ask for a divorce and any land that the woman owned at the time of marriage as well as any gift of land bequeathed to her by her husband would remain hers.

Mabinogion, the name given to a collection of Welsh literature provides yet another example of a Celtic woman's ability to accept or reject a proposal of marriage.

Much of the information on the Celtic Goddesses has also been passed down to us by Irish and Welsh literature. Here are but a few of the many goddesses that served the polytheistic Celts. For further information on Pre-Roman Religion in Europe, as well as many more examples of goddesses, see the page by Sara.
Epona, Horse Goddess
Epona, Horse Goddess

  • Andastra, Victory goddess of the Iceni
  • Artio, 'Bear', a forest goddess
  • Epona, Gallic horse goddess, with fertility aspects
  • Sequana, Goddess of the Seine

Most of the evidence for the Celtic goddess comes from econographical and epigraphic evidence.(Green, pg 26) The Celt, as did other cultures during this period of time combined healing ideology with religion, the two often being performed by the same person. As far back as the bronze age water was an important part of the healing ritual. During the iron age healing cults also included regeneration and fertility. Women were the source of new life, it would only seem fitting that they held some position of fascination in the areas of medicine and religion. Green states, there is evidence that many devotees of healing deities were women.(pg 26)







4. Conclusion:

The anthropological problem that exists in the study of ancient cultures, and in the research I have completed, is deducting a conclusion based on a limited amount of facts. The Celtic people lived in a vast area stretching from the southwest tip of Spain as far north as Ireland and Briton, across the entire of Europe to the Black Sea and even into what is now Turkey. Their reign would last for some 700 years. They shared this time in history with other empires and it is known that they interacted, whether peacefully or not, with the Greeks, Romans and possibly the Chinese for hundreds of years. It is only plausible to conclude that some of the Greek and Roman literature we have today does contain some factual information. This being the case, it would appear that the Celtic women were allowed to inherit and own land. Celtic women had personal and family based rights that guaranteed them some financial securities. Celtic women were strong, courageous, smart. They held positions of authority, served as ambassadors, and, when needed would join their spouses in battle, and occasionally lead the battle themselves. The literary evidence that comes from Irish and Welsh folklore also speaks of the same strong, courageous and smart Celtic women, telling similar stories of women who fought in battle and held the highest position of ruler. Women who entered into a marriage of their own choosing, with the ability to divorce as seen necessary, again mentioning the ability of Celtic women to retain material wealth. Women who were also able to participate in religious ceremony and maintained important roles as religious deities.
The hard archaeological evidence of Celtic female burials most definitely implies that these women were special. Adorned in gold, laid to rest on ceremonial wagons, even outnumbering male graves in some areas leads me to believe that women were most definitely respected and revered by their male counterparts. The extent of their power and prestige in the Celtic society remains vague. It is my hope that future archaeological discoveries may shed further light on the the role of women in this fascinating Celtic Empire.

How can learning about the Celtic women and the roles they played in their own society affect us in ours? One of my favorite quotes comes from the movie "Amistad", when the character of John Quincy Adams sums up the importance of history as 'who we are, is who they were'. Everything that happens in our world today is the culmination of a long line of events. We can better understand ourselves and our culture by peering into the cultures of the past. As a woman, I am proud of the legends and pieces of data that surround the Celtic women, their strength, courage and pride, and as a descendant of her, I hope to model and instill those same traits in my daughter.




For Further Reading:
Women in Celtic Society




celtic-chief-tainess.jpg
Celtic Chieftaness, 600-100BC


SOURCES

1. Noble, Thomas. “The Foundations of Western Civilization”. University of Notre Dame. Disc 3.

2. The historical Library of Diodorus 5:317

3. Ellis, Peter. The Druids. Constable and Company Limited. 1994

4. classics.mit.edu/Caesar/gallic.html 6.18

5. Freeman, Philip. War, Woman and Druids. University of Texas Press. 2002

6. Matthews, John.
Ancient Writers Greece and Rome, volume II. Charles Scribner's Sons. 1982

7. Frey, Otto.
The Celts. Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. 1999

8. James, Simon.
The World of the Celts. Thames and Hudson, 1993

9. Biel, Jorg.
The Celts. Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. 1999

10. “Reinheim: the final home for a princes?(Brief Article).” Calliope. Cobblestone Publishing, a division of Carus Publishing Company. 2001.
HighBeam Research. 27 Nov. 2009

11. Schutz, Herbert. The Prehistory of Germanic Europe. Yale University Press New Haven and London, 1983

12. Roualet, Pierre.
The Celts. Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. 1999

13. Haffner, Alfred.
The Celts. Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. 1999

14. T. Fashion victim: clothing styles to die for?.” Dig. Cobblestone Publishing, a division of Carus Publishing Company. 2005.
HighBeam Research. 24 Nov. 2009

15. O'Reilly, John.
Poetry & Songs of Ireland. Gay Brothers & Co, 1889

16. Loomis. Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. Vol I: A-I. Funk & Wagnall Company, 1949


17. Mabinogion. Project Gutenberg. //gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?pageno=27&fk_files=274054//


18. Green, Miranda and Billington, Sandra. EBook Concept of the Goddess. London New York Taylor & Francis Routledge, 1996